On the morning of August 7 1974, 24-year-old Philippe Petit finally performed the daring stunt that he had spent six years planning: a high-wire walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.
Petit first got the idea while looking through a magazine at the dentist in 1968 when he was just 17. Photographs of the not-yet-completed buildings captivated him, and he was seized with the desire to perform there. The artist collected articles on the Towers whenever he could, and learned everything about the buildings and their construction in preparation for the performance. Although his walk across the Towers is Petit’s most famous performance, it was not his first high-wire stunt. While planning for his walk between the Towers, he began performing at other famous places such as the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris and the Sydney Harbour Bridge in Sydney, Australia.
With his friends’ help, Petit was able to study the Towers and scope out the site. From renting helicopters and taking aerial photos of the unfinished buildings to sneaking into the Towers and studying the building’s security measures, Petit’s collaborators played major roles in the success of the performance.
Petit went to extreme measures to gain access to the building, from fake IDs and construction outfits to posing as a journalist from a French architecture magazine. Although he was once caught on the roof by police, he continued forward with his plans.
On the night before the performance, Petit and his crew caught a freight elevator up to the 104th floor. Once on the roof, Petit’s crew used a bow and arrow to shoot the 450-pound steel cable across the void between the two towers.
A little after 7am, Petit began his 45-minute performance 1350 feet above the ground, dancing, walking, and laying down on the cable as the Towers and wire swayed in the wind. While onlookers watched and cheered, the NYPD and Port Authority officers were on the roofs of both towers persuading Petit to come down. Though they threatened to lift him off by helicopter, Petit came down on his own after it started to rain.
Back on the ground, Petit was greeted by news casters, cameras, cheers, and the news that the district attorney would not press charges for the stunt. In exchange for his freedom, the artist was required to give a free performance for children in Central Park. He performed a high-wire walk above Belvedere Lake.
Despite the illegality of his World Trade Center performance, Port Authority gave Petit a lifetime pass to the World Trade Center Observation Deck, where he autographed a steel beam close to the spot where he began his walk.
Since September 11, 2001, Petit has performed numerous times in Central Park to commemorate his Tower walk and to remember those lost in the attack. “It’s painful to perform here now with them gone, but I still consider them my towers,” Petit told the New York Times in 2005. “If they built them again, I would walk between them again.”
In 2008, director James Marsh explored Petit’s planning and stunt in “Man on Wire,” a documentary based on Petit’s book of the same name.